Chairman of Council, Honoured Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen, Boys and Girls, welcome to what amounts to Rossall’s first, and hopefully last, ever virtual speech day. This has been a quite extraordinary year in so many respects but as I stand here before you today, I feel especially honoured to lead our community and to play my role in ensuring that we continue to celebrate our illustrious history whilst working together to further develop and enhance this liberal and progressive school situated here amidst the exceptional beauty of the Fylde Coast.
Rossall has endured many challenges since its foundation one hundred and seventy six years ago. It is worth remembering that in 1939, the whole school was compelled to up sticks and leave this part of the world in order to temporarily relocate to Naworth Castle, near the Scottish border. This was because the school buildings were commandeered by the British government. Whether it be due to ravages of war or the devastating impact of the Spanish Influenza of 1918, this community has been tested repeatedly yet never found to be wanting. What defines us across the ages, is the courage, creativity and resilience with which successive generations of Rossallians have responded to challenge, rather than the intrinsic nature of these challenges themselves.
Whilst I do not want to dwell too much upon the unprecedented challenges of recent months, I do want to share with you my admiration for the courage and resilience that all members of this community have demonstrated of late. As we now begin to emerge from the other side of this crisis, we do so in the sure knowledge that those bonds which have been forged in adversity have only served to enrich and intensify our relationships with one and other. We have inspired each other to live with hope and face the future in the sure knowledge that we will emerge from this in a stronger position than ever before. We have not simply survived; we have grown together and thrived together during these most testing of times.
The curricular and staffing changes that we made during the academic year 2018-19 have enabled us, throughout this period, to offer an educational offering which would be the envy of most independent and maintained schools. I am immeasurably proud of my colleagues and I marvel at their resourcefulness and the compassionate solicitude that they have demonstrated for all of our children. In countless ways, they have revealed the depth of their love for this School. They have moved proverbial mountains during recent months and have done so with grace and kindness. All our teachers have adapted to online teaching incredibly successfully – always seeking to ‘go the extra mile’ in order to maximise learning opportunities for our children. I am proud of them, grateful to them and humbled by them.
I believed that our School Development Plan for 2019/20 was ambitious enough in its own right, but recent events have served to blast it into the stratosphere. When we decided to introduce iPads and embed the use of Google Classroom, little did we know that just six months later we would have delivered over 10,000 online lessons to students scattered across 12 time zones and residing in 41 different countries. Similarly, when we discussed our desire to introduce a Rossall School Diploma at some undetermined point in the future, little did we think that, just six weeks later, we would have devised and successfully launched a diploma programme which would serve to fill the gaping void left by the abrupt removal of public examinations. Never have we valued our independence more than at this current point in time because it has enabled us to make decisions which are right for our children rather than forcing us to be beholden to ill-considered government dictats. Educationally and in terms of our response to COVID-19, we choose to lead rather than to follow.
Due to the creative leadership of Dina Porovic and David Clarke, staff have embraced digital technology with a speed and enthusiasm which is indicative of their strong commitment to professional development. Indeed, we have an energised body of teachers who bring with them extensive experience gained from having worked in top performing schools both here in the UK and overseas. The creativity and intellectual dynamism now apparent in our Common Room is one of the strongest facets of Rossall School in 2020. When I was appointed, I made it clear that I intended the quality of teaching and learning taking place in Rossall to surpass that which may be found in any other independent or maintained school in the North West and I believe that we are now achieving this.
Local families are now choosing Rossall because, in terms of the quality of the teaching and pastoral support, and in terms of the School’s ambition for our children, there is no longer a serious or credible comparison to be made with local and/or regional alternatives and, increasingly, our reputation is preceding us. More importantly, the very best teachers are eager to join Rossall and the recruitment crisis that you hear of in the teaching profession is not something that manifests itself here at Rossall. It is very clear that teachers with real ambition now gravitate towards us and this is why our educational offering and the overall quality of our teaching is of such a high standard.
During difficult times, support from our parents has remained steadfast. We never underestimate the huge sacrifices that our parents make in order to be able to send their children to be educated here at Rossall. There is an inevitability that many of our parents have endured economic hardship of late and your continued support for the School humbles us. It is never taken for granted and we are honoured that you have chosen to become members of this wonderful community. At this point in our history your unshakeable confidence and faith in our ethos, values and sense of purpose is so valued.
I am the custodian of this community and it is my responsibility to serve each and every member of this school. Whilst hierarchical structures remain in terms of the school’s leadership structure, this is a community firmly rooted in equality and one in which every individual has a powerful voice. This is certainly not my school, it is our school and the physical buildings that surround us are our hopes and dreams, the very beating soul of this community, made manifest in bricks, stone and mortar. When we are long gone, these buildings will remain and the collective memory of this community will, I hope, look back on 2020 with a sense of pride and recognise it as a point in our history when the spirit of our community burned with a radiant brightness that transcended all adversity.
I believe that there has never been a better time to be a Rossallian and never a time when we have exercised our independence more effectively. By any standards it has been a tumultuous year and one during which the independent sector has faced repeated external threats. In September, a motion was passed at the Labour Party Conference which sought to abolish the sector in its entirety. Momentum and the hard-left successfully influenced the leadership’s manifesto commitments and privately educated Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell were quick to point out the iniquities of a system from which they themselves had benefited. However, in the immediate run up to the General Election, it became apparent that the British people were determined to reject what amounted to an unbridled onslaught on what one or two commentators damned as ‘engines of inequality’. It transpired that there was little appetite for a move which would have cost the British taxpayer billions of pounds and done absolutely nothing to improve the overall quality of the nation’s education.
Throughout this period, media stories typically stereotyped all independent schools as socially exclusive bastions of wealth, populated by foreign oligarchs and landed gentry. The movement to destroy private schools adopted the lazy hashtag ‘abolishEton’ and the public conscience was seared with divisive images and a toxic sentiment that attempted to tear people apart rather than bring them together.
As a sector, it strikes me that we were depressingly slow to respond to these attacks. Despite all the rhetoric about equality and opportunity, there was no serious plan to integrate independent schools into the state sector. The intent was simply to tear down and destroy rather than to create and improve. Whilst there are many thousands of successful partnerships between state and private schools, we felt that highlighting our desire to help promote social mobility by helping the most disadvantaged in society was somehow immodest or vulgar. Closer to home there were those who felt that I was too forthright in terms of articulating a heartfelt defence of our right to exist. They told me that it was a headmaster’s position to remain politely silent, perhaps offering little more than a periodic and deferential nod to the court of public opinion. I have a degree of sympathy with this position, but an enforced absence from any debate regarding our very right to exist would have served to render us mute bystanders rather than leaders of conviction. Many of my fellow heads did choose to remain silent but plenty more felt compelled to enter the fray.
For legitimate reasons, independent schools were an easy target and like many long-established institutions the independent sector really does need to modernise and become more self-aware. Our representative body, the Headmaster’s Conference or ‘HMC’ is the very epitome of a culturally conservative and traditionally genteel organisation. It is dominated by heads from the South East and appears increasingly adrift from the realities of the North West.
Independent schools in the North West are not at all wealthy but their real strength is that they tend to be culturally and socially much more diverse and inclusive than their more well-heeled Southern counterparts. Our parents are neither landed gentry nor oligarchs. Instead, they are hardworking individuals who wish to exercise their right, within a liberal and democratic society, to provide their children with the very best start in life. There are those who would, for ideological reasons, have denied parents the right to do so, despite the fact that Rossall serves the local community in so many different ways.
A win for Corbyn would have meant VAT on School fees and the removal of charitable status. Increases in contributions to the Teachers’ Pension Scheme and National Insurance have meant that schools were facing increasing pressure long before COVID-19 reared its head. Therefore, schools have to become evermore resourceful and evolve in order to flourish – otherwise they become stagnant, inward-looking communities fonder of reminiscing about the past rather than planning for the future.
We will never stop seeking to serve the communities that lie beyond these gates. During this period, Rossall has made PPE for the NHS, provided technical support and accommodation for Fleetwood Food Bank and continues to support a diversity of local initiatives in countless different ways. The level of bursarial support offered by Rossall is twice the sector average and we provide employment for 287 local people whilst contributing millions of pounds to the local economy. I am grateful that when private schools did come under sustained attack, many people within Fleetwood were quick to express their support for us and they recognised our desire to enrich the wider community. Nevertheless, it is right that we should be challenged, especially during these times, to ensure that our charitable objectives extend beyond the confines of Rossall, and I hope initiatives such as the hugely successful Da Vinci Academy and ongoing relationship with Donna’s Dream House in Blackpool provides real meaning to our stated commitment to serve the people of the Fylde.
As a historian, I see no contradiction between embracing the past, and seeking to promote meaningful change. You do not safeguard the past by hitting the pause button on progress. Rather, you serve those who have gone before by being endlessly ambitious for the future and by ensuring that the young people in your care are provided with the very best opportunity to live successful and fulfilling lives in the modern world. It is that intrinsic desire to improve which motivates us to dedicate the best part of our lives to serving our children and this community.
It is that sense of commitment and responsibility which has provided us with the creative energy and resilience necessary to bring us through such momentous challenges. The faith that you have placed in us drives our unshakeable determination to ensure that we emerge from this as an even better school and an even stronger community.
During recent months, I have drawn a good deal of strength from those around me. It is probably not easy being married to a Headteacher at the best of times – we are often absent and even when we are there in person, we are often consumed by the stresses and strains that accompany leadership. Without Fiona’s love and support, I would not be able to dedicate myself so wholly to this community. So often, she has had to assume the lionshare of childcare whilst also looking after our most vulnerable children here in School and I am desperately proud of the work that she does to ensure that all our children are able to access the curriculum. Her strength, humour and compassion has never once wavered despite the challenges of recent months. It really is a blessing and honour to go through life with her at my side and in thanking her, I hope that I am also articulating in words what so many of us must have felt for our loved ones during recent times.
It is a privilege of this role that we get to know so many of our families personally and at various points throughout this year, I have been moved by the courage of some of our families who have experienced ongoing personal difficulties.
There are no words that pay justice to the debt of gratitude that we, as a community, owe to both Dina Porovic and Ben Clark. Through countless incarnations, Ben produced timetables which have successfully overcome the changing demands of the curriculum and the need to operate remotely. With calm stoicism, he has always found practical solutions to every conceivable problem that we have thrown at him. When Ben originally arrived at Rossall, he made it clear that he would prefer to work part time and enjoy a more sedate pace of life. This year has really driven a cart and horses through that particular dream but Ben, thank you for all that you have accomplished this year.
Dina is a whirlwind of energy, calm pragmatism and creativity. She possesses a determination and intellectual brilliance that is complemented by kindness and unfailing positivity. She is fazed by nothing and Rossall’s academic renaissance owes everything to her decisive leadership and warrior-like commitment to ensuring that all of our children achieve superb outcomes. Much of that which we should celebrate this year is directly attributable to her vision, leadership and organisation. I should also thank Robert Robinson for his wisdom, patience and steadfast loyalty.
Stephen Prest is an outstanding Director of Sixth Form and he has established an intellectually vibrant culture of high expectations which has been actively embraced by all of our Sixth Formers. Catherine Stacker has provided excellent leadership of the Lower School and whilst the flames of Dragon House may now have been well and truly quenched, what has emerged, is a Lower School of which we are all very proud. I should also like to thank Ky Hutchinson, who has provided such strong leadership of the Upper School during these times. Our other Heads of Years, Catherine Latham, Sophie Robinson, Alex Shaw and Louisa Adcock have all helped to ensure that our new pastoral and academic structures have become an overwhelming success and I know that parents would want me to thank them for always being available, always caring and always knowing their children so very well.
This summer, we say goodbye to Ian Parry and thank him for his assured leadership of Pelican House. He will be replaced by our new Director of Studies, Chris Payne and his wife Rebecca, who will be joining us from Hong Kong in the summer. We also say goodbye to Isabelle and Graham Wallace and thank them for making MC such a happy house – they will be sorely missed by their boys. However, they are as delighted as me to know that their house will be in the very capable hands of Richard Symons and his wife Isabelle Freeman and we look forward to welcoming them to the Rossall community in the summer. Amy Pendlebury leaves Dolphin as she is moving to China to accompany her husband Max, who will be teaching at Dulwich College Shanghai. However, she will remain working for us, albeit remotely. Amy is an astounding tour de force. Not only is she an incredibly attentive and fun-loving houseparent but she is also our digital marketing guru and, during recent times, she has become our resident film producer. We are delighted that she will be remaining part of the Rossall family. Sharon Wright has quickly established herself as a favourite amongst our girls and they are looking forward to welcoming her into their house ahead of next September.
Emma Williams becomes our new Director of Boarding and Katie Lee will move into the role of Director of Operations. Both Katie and Emma have been central to our planning for reopening the School and, together, they constitute an incredibly powerful team. I know that their practical organisational skills are key to ensuring that we continue to respond so effectively to the current situation. It is a real joy to work with both of them and Katie’s service to Rossall only seems to intensify with the passing of each year. Thank you is never enough.
I would like to thank all of our houseparents and house staff for the love, care and support that they have provided our boarders and their families during what has been a logistically and emotionally challenging time. Never has their care and love for our boarders been more apparent than during those very difficult days in March. We know what a hard job you do and we look forward to August, when the houses will once again be filled with the sound of young voices. Never has silence been less welcome.
We would be nothing without our fabulous teachers and I thank each and everyone of them for all that they do for our children. Similarly, our support staff are phenomenal and nobody has worked harder or longer than our bursar, Emma Sanderson – it is because of her that we are able to determine such an assured path through these current times.
This year we were joined by Matt Turner as Head of the Junior School and he has brought with him an infectious joy of learning which has resonated very well with our pupils and parents. I am incredibly grateful for all that he has done to drive forward the development of the Junior School, and the happiness of our boys and girls is in no small part attributable to Matt and his brilliant team of teachers.
Lucy Barnwell, Nancy Fielden, Julie Yorke, Adam Cawkwell and Gillian Leggett are all fabulous ambassadors for Rossall and they are so often the link between Rossall and the world beyond. If Rossall’s reputation is riding high then it is invariably because of their actions and determination to place Rossall centre stage.
Finally, I would like to thank Chris Holt and our board of governors for their unshakeable support through these times. Their encouragement is as highly valued as their practical support and guidance. Over recent times, a small group of governors have met weekly to ensure that we can enter the forthcoming academic year in a position of real confidence. No headteacher could be better served by their governing body, but more importantly, no school could be better served by its governing body. Members of Council – from all of us here at Rossall, we are incredibly appreciative of all that you do for us and we cannot wait to welcome you back on site.
It would be remiss of me not to mention Alf Tansey and Henry Shepherd for ensuring the success of the School Foundation – a charitable body that has donated colossal sums of money to the school during recent years and without which, there would be no sports hall and far fewer scholarships and bursaries. Similarly, I would like to pay particular tribute to Hazel Trapnell as her continuing support for the school manifests itself in so many different ways though I know that public acclaim is the very last thing that she desires. Hazel, thank you so much – you always have our interests at heart and your support is always so well considered.
We were tremendously sad to lose Graeme Marrs, President of the Old Rossallian Club in the Autumn of 2019. As an incoming Head, I could not have asked for a more supportive friend than Graeme. We think of him often and I am delighted that Graeme’s Garden (named in his honour) is a place of such joy at the heart of our school. Our rabbits, chickens and pygmy goats will soon be joined by some alpacas and I am sure that Graeme would have approved and chuckled at the antics of our unruly animals!
We are grateful to all Old Rossallians who have expressed support for the School during this time and your generosity enables us to enrich the lives of current pupils in so many different ways. I am delighted that the Foundation’s most recent gift means that we will be able to re-decorate the Dining Hall this summer.
I was pleased that we were able to pass on a modest discount on the summer term fees. Rossall School produces no discernable surplus but through very careful financial management and recourse to the government’s furloughing scheme, we have been able to absorb some of the cost of this discount which currently stands at just under one million pounds. The loss of summer school income has posed further challenge but, nevertheless, we have somehow found the means to provide some very limited additional support to struggling families. Senior Staff have voluntarily taken sizable pay cuts, capital expenditure projects have been suspended and our cost base reduced. All of this is worthwhile, for it safeguards the school for the future.
I would like to thank our parents for understanding the rationale underpinning the decisions that we took back in March and appreciating our desire to share the pain of recent times, but in such a manner that serves to safeguard the future of Rossall. That support will never be taken for granted and will be repaid many times over in terms of the quality of everything that we do next year and beyond.
It is now time to announce various new initiatives for the forthcoming year.
First of all, Captain Lee Magowan has been appointed as Rossall’s first ever Director of Leadership and Adventure Education. He is about to leave the army after twenty three years of distinguished service, which has included tours of Afghanistan, Kosovo and Iraq. His enthusiasm will drive forward the development of the Combined Cadet Force and Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme and we intend to launch an integrated adventure training curriculum which will include expeditions and outdoor activities for every year group in both the Junior and Senior Schools.
We have also appointed our first ever Director of Health and Wellbeing, who is Rachel Magowan and, yes, she is Lee’s wife. Rachel has a background in mental health nursing and she has also been a health visitor, and a hospital inspector for the Quality Care Commission. It is her role to develop the scope of our counselling provision and to ensure that what was a traditional school medical centre gradually becomes a modern health and wellbeing centre – a place where staff and pupils gravitate in order to take positive steps to look after their emotional and physical health. It is my belief that this will be an especially important consideration post COVID-19.
For me, the focus on wellbeing and mental health is personal. I have often spoken of the profound impact that the loss of my father had on my childhood. I have also spent much of the last twenty years working with young people and bearing witness to the devastating impact of issues such as eating disorders, depression and self harm. Whilst I have the highest aspirations for all of our pupils academically, nothing compares with the importance of protecting and promoting their current and future wellbeing. By focusing upon wellbeing, leadership and adventure training, I think we will ensure that all of our pupils are in a position to benefit from a world class holistic offering.
Performing Arts will receive a huge boost next year because we have been fortunate enough to recruit an incredibly strong music department to build upon the work of Margaret Young, who leaves us to take up a post in Thailand. Adam Dobson, currently Director of Music at the British School in Barcelona becomes our new Director of Music. An outstanding pianist, graduate of the Royal College of Music, and highly experienced musical director who has worked in the West End and directed the European crossover band, ‘the 12 Tenors’, Adam will be joined by Richard Symons, who is currently Director of Music at Browning School on the Lower East Side in Manhattan. Browning is one of New York’s most well known private schools. I am delighted that his wife, Isabelle Freeman is joining us. She is an accomplished opera singer who has taken on lead roles in both Canada and the US. Finally, Tom Edney joins us as Assistant Director of Music having just completed a masters’ degree in choral conducting at Cambridge where he also ran the chapel choir of Darwin College. David Newell, Head of Drama will also be joined by Andrew Veitch who is currently Assistant Head of Merchiston International School. Andrew was previously Head of Drama at Holloway School in Islington. Our investment in the Performing Arts is indicative of our determination to become the premier centre for the arts on the Fylde Coast. It also demonstrates once again our ability to invest in recruiting well, often exploiting our network of contacts to ensure that we do really bring the very best people to Rossall.
From this September, our Nursery will be accepting babies from the age of three months and upwards. The Nursery has been entirely refurbished and it is a really beautiful environment within which future generations of Rossallians will begin their journey with us.
Boarders will now be able to remain with us during all Half Term breaks. Over the summer, Dolphin will migrate to Lugard which was redecorated just before the onset of lockdown. Even during these times we are pushing ahead with the development of the School and constantly seeking to expand and refine every aspect of our operations.
It is a privilege to lead this community and the joy and excitement which results from seeing the happiness and success of our boys and girls makes it one of the most rewarding roles imaginable. There is nowhere else that I would rather be than right here right now and there is no community I would rather serve than this wonderful community of generous, creative, compassionate and engaged people.
To our Upper Sixth Formers, we wish you well in your future endeavours and now is not the time for a lengthy goodbye – not least because I am determined that when current restrictions have passed, we will invite you back to School for the sort of valedictory celebrations that I know you all deserve so very much. You have borne yourself so well throughout these recent weeks and you have served as a shining example of all that it means to be a Rossallian. I could not have asked for a better team of monitors and Lex Bilby and Louisa Rogerson have both been outstanding school captains. They have been superbly well assisted by Morgan Woodward and Joshua Fallows. Year 13, your list of achievements in terms of outstanding university offers, sporting triumphs and, above all, your absolute commitment to being such thoroughly decent human beings make you a credit to yourselves, your parents and this community.
All that remains is for me to wish you well and to celebrate the fact that we can now begin to count down the days until we meet again….